Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Haras Cerro Punta

Day 4 Haras Cerro Punta

Today we visited a farm where they breed and raise Thoroughbred race horses called “Haras Cerro Punta”. They have 140 horses total including: 5 Thoroughbred stallions, 65 Thoroughbred mares, and 1 Percheron stallion called “Centurion” - the remaining are yearlings.                                                   

Breeding takes place during the months of February-March and the newborns arrive 11 months later. The mares give birth to their fouls in a laboratory/clinic located in the basement level of the main house. Artificial insemination is illegal in Panama, so all offspring are conceived naturally. There is an on-site veterinarian 24/7.

The fouls are started in gate training at 5 months old. Here they are fed their daily rations in an enclosed area designed to acclimatize them to being in the starting gate. Race training begins at 17 months and utilizes a rotational running machine designed to get the horses used to running in an enclosed space. The horses are exercised daily at this higher altitude location (2000 meters) in order to develop greater lung capacity and endurance. At 2 years of age they are taken to Panama City where they are sold at an auction that takes place at the Hipodromo Presidente Remon Racetrack. The horses race from 2 to 6 years of age.

4 of the Thoroughbred stallions here are from the United States and one champion called “Figo” was born and raised at Haras Cerro Punta. The 6th stallion residing here is “Centurion”. He is a 13 year old 2300 pound, majestic Percheron. He has a shiny jet black coat and a fabulously wavy mane and tail. Not only is he handsome, but he is also extremely good-natured and they will let you take a short ride on him if you want to give it a try.

Tours are available at the farm daily from 8:30-5:30 and cost only $5.00. This is a great opportunity for anyone who wants to see some beautiful horses and learn something about the lives of racehorses.

Day 3: Finca Dracula

Day 3 Los Quetzales

Today we visited “Finca Dracula”, a local Orchid farm named after the rare Dracula Orchids. The farm was founded in 1969. It sits on 10 acres, 5 of which are greenhouses and gardens. The farm has 2200 different Orchid species from around the world, 115 of which are the Dracula variety. Currently the Orchids here are for exhibition only.

We took a 20 minute tour and learned many things about the plants and how they are grown. I emerged with a much greater appreciation for the lovely flower. First we learned that the process from pollination to flowering plant takes 5 years when grown commercially. It takes 15 years in nature. It takes 12 months to make a mature seed capsule that produces millions of seeds. In nature, a fungus called Michoriza provides nutrients for the maturing seed. In the nursery they use Agar as a substitute for the fungus. We also learned the different techniques each type of flower uses to attract potential pollinators. Some use smell while others use a visual attractant like mimicking a female insect. Some of them trap their pollinators causing them to become agitated and release the pollen inside the plant.

Day 2 at Los Quetzales

Day 2 at Los Quetzales

At 8:30 A.M. we met our guide Abel for our hike into La Amistad National Park. The journey to the trail began by tractor driven wagon (lucky for us) as the road to the trailhead was rugged and long. We started the actual hike at one of the remote Los Quetzales cabins. They are located just outside the park boundary and are lighted by kerosene lamps and heated by wood fireplaces.  The hike was pretty much straight up and then straight down along a not so worn rainforest path that passed through several streams, by 3 waterfalls and was surrounded by dense vegetation. We were provided with tall rubber boots for the hike which we picked up at the cabin. The hike was moderately strenuous (unless you have bad knees) and lasted about 2 hours. It was a great introduction to this lush environment.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Headed to Guadalupe

Headed to Guadalupe

We made it out of Panama City around 0930 and began our 9 hour road trip to Guadalupe. We navigated the well-paved roads without incident passing by many radar- wielding National Police. The speed varies between 30-100 km/hr. The weather was partly cloudy with occasional light rain.

We arrived in Guadalupe around 6:30 P.M., just about the time it was getting dark. Guadalupe is a tiny community nestled in the mountains near Volcan Baru. The hills are covered with many different agricultural crops and the high mountain peaks beyond are shrouded in a perpetual mist. We are here at the end of rainy season and right now there still seems to be a significant amount of rain that often takes on the form of heavy blowing mist.

Our hotel Los Quetzales is perfect for this phase of our adventure. It is located just outside of 2 national parks, Volcan Baru National Park and La Amistad National Park. The restaurant serves excellent cuisine at a reasonable price and has a descent variety of vegetarian selections. They have an organic garden here where they grow many of their own vegetables. The staff is friendly and very helpful. Our room is on the top floor of a 3 story lodge-type building. It is equipped with a kitchen, fireplace, patio and my favorite, a small lookout loft surrounded by windows complete with window seats. I have dubbed this room my secret hideaway. The lodge also has a spa which offers a variety of therapeutic modalities. Activities at the lodge include; guided or non-guided hiking, biking, birding, and horseback riding.

Arriving in Panama City

Panama City Arrival
After 24 hours of flying and layovers we reached Panama City. The skies were partly cloudy, the air sticky, making the 85 degrees feel like 95. We checked in to our hotel on the canal and immediately headed for the balcony where we sat fuzzy-headed and blurry eyed watching the massive tankers and cargo ships cruise lazily by. There is something quite mesmerizing about watching ships pass by. We took turns succumbing to sleep deprivation dozing off in the tropical heat. Eventually we mustered enough energy to take a stroll along the Amador (a long paved walkway at the side of the canal). We passed by a huge new abstract looking structure that is going to be a natural science museum. We also noticed many new high-rise buildings in the center of the city.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bird watching in Mindo

We left the arid landscape of the coastline and headed in land to the Cloud Forest. We stayed in a small town that is nestled in the middle of densely forested mountains called Mindo. Population here is about 2,500. Our hosteria was a 4 story B & B in town called The Dragonfly Inn. The staff here is very friendly and helpful. The food is great and the house wine (decent tasting) is only $2.50/glass.

We spent 2 days birding here and saw many different species, including the star attraction, “The Cock of the Rock.” What a crazy looking bird. Our first morning got up at 4:00 A.M. and trekked up to the Cock of the Rock Lek. We stood behind a blind and watched about 12 males performing for one female. They squawked, flapped their wings and danced back and forth along a branch. What a show!

There are many things to do in Mindo, like: zip-line canopy rides, river tubing, scenic waterfall hikes, canyoning, horseback riding, visits to a local chocolate factory and butterfly farm and of course birding. We only participated in the later, as we were winding down our adventure. We did attend the “Frog Concert” on our last night here. This event is basically a night hike at place that has a large pond in the middle of a preserve with many trails through the forest surrounding it. Here as you can imagine you can hear and see many types of frogs as well as different kinds of insects, mammals, and snakes. They put on a guided tour every night at 6:30 P.M.

Mindo is a lovely little town with friendly locals. It is easy and safe to walk around even at night. The setting is picturesque, a blanket of deep green, topped with the ever present wafting clouds. There is a daily downpour that seems to happen at around 3:00 – 5:00 P.M. and is followed by sun.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beach time in Puerto Lopez

We said good-bye to our Ecuadorian family in Cuenca and headed to Puerto Lopez on the coast for some R & R and whale watching. Our plane landed in Manta. The scenery was bleak, the land parched with dry shrubs and stunted Ceba trees, and there were vultures – lots of them, in fact, I don’t think I have ever seen so many vultures. I envisioned bones scattered throughout the landscape - no chance to see them though, as we sped down the highway at about 80 MPH with Latin music blaring. We arrived in Puerto Lopez 1 ½ hours later.

Hosteria Mandala (our lodging for the next 4 nights) is a lush oasis located on a long stretch of beach. It has colorful tropical gardens with many birds. The cabins are dispersed throughout and accessed via a maze-like pathway that winds its way through the garden. The beach has powdery light beige sand and there are pelicans, Frigate birds and of course vultures flying overhead. The water feels about 70 degrees. To the left you can walk toward the town to see the local fisherman bringing in their catch starting around 6:00 in the morning. To the right you can take a leisurely stroll for an hour or more and encounter only beach, surf, crabs, shells and if your lucky baby turtles. We encountered two on one of our morning strolls. They were struggling to access the sea against high tide. We provided them with a little human assist and set them a drift in deeper water, past the shallow waves that kept re-depositing them further up the shore. We watched for a bit to see if they would get washed back and when they didn’t return we wished them well on their continuing perilous journey.

In addition to our daily beach walks and hammock time, we went on a whale watching tour that proved to be the best we’d ever encountered. First we saw a mother and baby Humpback about 15 minutes into our tour and farther out we found another mother, baby with an adult male. They performed for us for nearly 2 hours and did everything from fin slaps to spy-hopping. The grand finale was a breach by the adult male. What a treat! Whale season here is June – September.

Our last day in Puerto Lopez we visited a local community called Agua Blanca where they have Pre-Columbian ruins. For $5.00 you get a tour with a non-English speaking guide. The ruins are not too impressive and unless you speak Spanish well it’s difficult to get the history from a guide that doesn’t speak any English. They do have a sacred natural lagoon fed by mineral springs where you can swim. The dip was a refreshing after a hot dusty hike but the water smelled heavily of sulfur, so got in swam across it and got out. After this stop we visited a lovely secluded beach called Los Frailes in Manchalilla National Park. It is a perfect beach for swimming, picnicking, etc.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cuenca Final Day- "The Cuy Experience!"

Day # 6: Our final day in Cuenca, we finished our Spanish lessons and took one last walk through city streets to capture a few more photos. In the evening we took our family hosts and our instructor out to a local restaurant that served “Cuy” (Guinea Pig). The meat is roasted on a spit over coals. It is really quite tasty. The flavor is sort of like strong flavored chicken. We weren’t able to muster the guts to try this local delicacy when we were in Peru, so we decided that this time we had to go for it. It was a nice way to bring a close to a very enriching week and I think the family and our instructor were thrilled to share this unique culinary experience with us.

Cuenca, Continued

Cuenca Day #5: In the morning we took a tour to the ruins of Ingapirca which means “Inca Wall”. On the way to the ruins we passed stands where they were cooking whole pigs with a blow torch. Our guide told us that they use this technique to cook the skin only (people eat the torched skin). The rest of the pig is cut up and cooked in other ways. When we reached 12,000 feet, we left the paved road and passed through verdant mountains where the local people raise trout.

Ingapirca is located at 3160 meters, approximately 1 ½ hours from Cuenca. The Incan ruins here are 600 years old. There are also ruins here from the Canari people that date back 3000 years. The Canaris were conquered by the Incans, but some of their culture was integrated into Incan society. The Canaris were a matriarchal society that worshiped the moon. The Incas were a patriarchal society that worshiped the sun. Here is where the Incan boy “Huaynacapac” became king at 5 years old when his father died. He married the Canari princess “Paccha” when the Incas took over their society.

At this site we were able to see both Incan and Canari ruins, like: the Temple of the Moon (Canari) and the Temple of the Sun (Inca). The Canari used river rocks and mud to construct their structures, while the Incas used square stones positioned in perfect alignment (a design thought to be used to withstand earthquakes).

In the afternoon we visited a very unusual art museum with our Spanish instructor. It was called “El Prohibido”. The art depicted demonic creatures and scenes relating to sex and death. The artist is from the Amazon where he is currently developing a lodge. One can only imagine what it will be like.